Loans from labour agents will keep them away till mid-June

Tied to brick-kilns in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka because of a ‘debt-bondage,’ more than three lakh migrant workers from the western districts of Odisha will miss out on voting in the Lok Sabha polls.

Odisha is going to the polls in two phases, on April 10 and 17. However, most migrant workers from these districts must have to slog away at brick-making till mid-June because they have taken a loan from labour agents, promising to work from November to June. A mere hint from them at leave of absence for voting is provoking brick manufacturers.

Jagannath Banchoor, along with 200 others, is working in a brick-kiln in the Ellapuram block of Tiruvallur district in Tamil Nadu. “Many of us came to the brick-kiln in November-December last. None will be allowed to leave before June 15. Sensing that political parties might contact us, the employers have asked us not to take phone calls,” Banchoor told The Hindu on the phone.

According to official data, the State government has granted licence to 3,046 contractors for taking 1,18,451 labourers to other States. Back in 2001, 1.44 lakh people from the districts of the Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) region migrated for work.

According to Umi Daniel, head of the Migration Information and Resource Centre (MiRC), Aide et Action South Asia, more than 60,000 families (around three lakh people) migrate from the districts of Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Bargarh, Sonepur and Sambalpur every year. “If migration from all other districts is taken into account, the population that migrates to work in brick kilns and the construction sector will not be less than four-five lakh. Around three lakhs of them must be eligible voters,” Mr. Daniel said.

At the same time, migration within Odisha has assumed dangerous proportions.

Around Bhubaneswar, at least 4,000 brick-kilns have come up, both legally and illegally. They engage thousands of people from the districts of Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Ganjam, Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi and Bargarh.

Migrant workers within the State seem better off than those stuck in brick-kilns of other States. While many brick manufacturers here are reluctantly ready to give workers leave for a couple of days to vote, many others fear they will not return once allowed to go.

At Bingharpur, on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, Bhagya Nayak, 35, from Paladhuajali in Ganjam district, said: “The local Sarpanch may send a bus to take us for voting. Of the 700-odd families of our village, members of 400 families are working in different brick-kilns here.”

Mr. Daniel said: “Migrant workers from Ganjam have a better social network. They could collectively bargain for a few days of leave to go to their villages. But migrants from western Odisha districts have slipped into bondage. There is a little chance of these workers getting freedom before June and July.”